Friday, August 24, 2007

Glossopoeia and the Internet

There’s an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times today, all about how the Internet is facilitating the spread of artificial languages (or conlangs). Made-up languages themselves are nothing new, of course. Whether for popular culture – for literature, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Quenya and Sindarin or Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat; or for movies like the Star Trek franchise – or with the more altruistic goal of brokering world communication – Esperanto, Volapük, Ido, Solresol, and others – artificially constructed languages have been around literally for centuries (just ask Dr. Pangloss). But with the explosion of instanteous worldwide communication made possible by the Internet, any Tom, Dick, or Harriet’s new made-up language can suddenly attract speakers. Now that is a wild thought!

In the case of Sonja Elen Kisa and Toki Pona, as discussed in the Times article, her own private language (well, more or less private – she did post it online, after all) now has “more than 100 speakers today.” How strange would it be to create a language – for whatever personal reasons one might have – and then to start hearing, straight out of the blue, from complete strangers “singing Toki Pona songs, writing Toki Pona poems and chatting with Toki Pona words”? This is either really cool or really creepy – or perhaps it’s somewhere in between.

Toki Pona even has its own Wikipedia article, a sure sign of some success. And if you want to learn it yourself, there’s a wealth of information at its official site.

The Times article goes on to establish a background context using the examples of Klingon, Esperanto, Loglan, and Tolkien’s constructed languages. Surprisingly for an article of this type, the information on Tolkien is accurate and fairly detailed, referring to his “secret vice”, and correctly identifying four of his invented languages. The author, Amber Dance (and did you ever hear a name more suited to an, err, exotic entertainer? :), even gets it right that that the languages came before the speakers, before the myths, legends, and geography of Middle-earth, rather than vice versa (see Tolkien’s letters #131 and #180, for example).

One thing I’m curious about is why – from a psychological standpoint – people want to learn somebody’s made-up language. I do understand (rather well) the desire to create made-up languages. My friend Gary and I used to make them up years ago, largely inspired by Tolkien himself. We called them our “Artificial Dialects”, and though they usually never got much further than a sketch of the grammar and a small vocabulary (again following Tolkien’s lead), they were quite a valuable intellectual and imaginative exercise. One of our languages, Kindric, intended to accompany a fantasy novel I was writing at the time, eventually swelled to something like 10,000 words! In Kisa’s case, again, the creation of Toki Pona had a clear psychological motive, but what about the learning of it by all those people who’ve never met her? What motivates someone to make that kind of investment, to learn it, compose in it, sing songs in it, and so forth?

I guess they just enjoy it. Perhaps it’s just a leisure activity like any other. Perhaps they’d just say hakuna matata. Or in Toki Pona, ale li pona. (There! I’ve just written the first entry for the first Swahili - Toki Pona dictionary. The rest of you Toki Ponans, get on finishing that, will you? :)


  1. I actively conlang, but I'd never learn someone else's except for a few phrases to greet, ask how it's going etc. In all honesty I'd find it very weird and a bit creepy if someone started to learn mine - even though I do have two lessons for it... heh!

  2. Welcome, and thanks for the comment. I’d feel the same way if anyone ever came up to me trying to speak Kindric, or any of the other languages I once invented. Of course, I don’t put them online; which begs the question: who are your online lessons for, if not for some hypothetical audience out there interested in learning it? ;)

    I took a look at your website and reference grammar(s). Some interesting stuff there! I especially liked that you created an entire culural and historical substrate for the language. Tolkien would have been proud. :)

  3. Jase, you probably might remember a few years ago when I happened to chat with a woman named Sylvia Sotomayor, who was a Penguin Books marketing rep at the time. She also created a very detailed language of her own, Kelen, and seems to have been quite the Tolkien aficionado as well. Apparently there are a lot of us around. ;)

  4. Gary, I’d forgotten about her, but now that you jog my memory ... The conlang movement really has taken off in the last decade or two! I wonder if there were “as many of us” before the advent of the World Wide Web?